Historic premillennialism claims many early church fathers among its adherents, including Irenaeus118 [140-203], Justin Martyr119 [100-165], and Papias [80-155].
In modern times, the most noted proponents of Historic Premillennialism include George Eldon Ladd of the Fuller Theological Seminary, who has written such books as A Theology of the New Testament, "Historic Premillennialism" and The Blessed Hope (in which he critiques dispensationalism), and James Boice of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Review of the features of Historic Premillennialism
Historic premillennialism teaches that the first coming of Christ is the beginning of a new age and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In his book on Amillennialism120, Kim Riddleberger gives this summary of historic premillennialism:
When Jesus begins his public ministry [during the first coming, i.e., two millennia ago], the kingdom of God is manifest through his preaching, teaching, and miracles, though the kingdom is not yet consummated. Upon Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the kingdom remains present through the Spirit and advances until the end of the age, which is marked by the return of Christ to the earth in judgment. Great apostasy and tribulation occur immediately preceding the return of Christ. After his return, a period of a thousand years121 (the millennium) will separate the first resurrection from the second resurrection. Satan will be bound and the kingdom will be consummated. At the end of the millennium period, Satan will be loosed, and a massive rebellion led by the mysterious Gog and Magog will immediately precede the second resurrection or final judgment. After this 1000 year earthly millennium, God will create a new heaven and a new earth.
The basic features of historic premillennialism are: 122
- The New Testament church is the initial phase of Christ’s Kingdom, as prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. 123
- The church may win occasional victories in history (including evangelization of the nations), but ultimately she will fail in her mission, lose influence, and become corrupted as worldwide evil increases toward the end of the church age. There will be an appearance of a personal antichrist.
- The church will pass through a future, worldwide, unprecedented time of travail (the Great Tribulation), which will punctuate the end of contemporary history.
- Rather than as a result of gradual progress, the onset of the millennium is cataclysmic. It will be visible to the entire earth.
- Christ will return at the end of the tribulation to rapture the church, resurrect dead saints, and conduct the judgment of the righteous. This is the most significant difference in outward features between historic premillennialism and dispensationalism: for historic premillennialists, the rapture is post-tribulation.
- Christ will then descend to earth with His glorified saints, fight the battle of Armageddon, defeat the antichrist, bind Satan, and establish a worldwide political kingdom which will be personally administered by him in Jerusalem for 1000 years. Many Jews will repent and accept Christ as the Messiah. The millennium will be a time of peace, justice, and extreme blessings: the desert will boom as a rose. There will be a cessation of hostilities among the animals (Is. 11:8-9, 65:25). However, it is not the eternal state; in particular there is still sin and death. Evil will be greatly retrained, and unbelieving nations are kept in check and ruled by Christ with an iron rod.
- At the end of 1000 years, Satan will be loosed and a fierce rebellion will ensue (sometimes identified as the Gog-Magog war). God will intervene with fiery judgments to rescue Christ and the saints. The resurrection and judgment of the wicked will occur and the eternal state will begin.
While it is tempting to conclude that historic premillennialism differs from dispensationalism only in the timing of the rapture, such a conclusion is quite wrong. For underneath the hood, the differences are vast. Historic premillennialism completely rejects the dispensational view of redemptive history. The only aspect of similarity is that both views are premillennial.
A table listing some of the differences between Historic Premillennialism and dispensationalism may be helpful:
|Advent||Early church||19th Century|
|Tribulation||Unspecified duration (maybe 7 years)—includes church||7 years, no church|
|Millennium||Spiritually oriented kingdom—the purpose is a higher outworking of Christ’s prerogatives as Lord.||Jewish theocracy—the purpose is to complete God's redemptive plan for the Jews.|
|Church||Spiritual Israel, covenantal relationships with God have passed over, some promises to Abraham are fulfilled therein.||A separate body of believers, does not inherit covenantal relationship or Abraham's promises.|
|Blessed Hope||Visible second coming||Secret rapture|
|Kingdom Offer||Spiritual kingdom instituted in the hearts of believers.||Rejected by Jews necessitating the church age intercalation.|
|Hermeneutic (for prophecy)||Mostly spiritual||Mostly literal|
The linchpin of premillennialism is two resurrections124. The first resurrection occurs when Christ returns. The righteous of all ages will rise to partake in the millennial kingdom. After the millennium the rest of the dead are raised and the wicked will be judged and consigned to their eternal misery.
The higher outworking of Christ’s Prerogatives
For historic premillennialists, the millennium represents the next step in Christ’s role as Lord. After His resurrection he sat at the right hand of the Father. His triumph, however, is not complete:
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)
Also, in the present age, his reign is visible only to the faithful. In the millennium, Christ’s Lordship will be public and evident to all. All knees will bow, all tongues will confess:
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:10-11)
Next we will examine the biblical support for historic premillennialism.
118 Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John. Yes, that John.
119 From whom, of course, we get the word martyr. Here is an authenticated account of his martyrdom from The Catholic Encyclopedia: "The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Savior. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour."
120 Kim Riddleberger, A Case for Amillennialism, (Baker Books), 2003, p. 28.
121 Actually, historic premillennialists are not as adamant as dispensationalists that the duration be precisely 1000 years.
122 Based upon: Kenneth Gentry, as quoted in Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, pp. 199-200.
123 This is in vivid conflict with dispensationalism, which holds that the present church age was unforeseen by the Old Testament prophets.
124 Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: a Study of the Millennium, (Baker), 1977. p. 97.